In reading over excerpts released by his staff of his inaugural address to be delivered today, one gets the idea Gov. Chris Christie is delivering his first stump speech of the 2016 presidential campaign. He makes certain to hit a conservative note, declaring, “I do not believe that New Jerseyans want a bigger, more expensive government that penalizes success and then gives the pittance left to a few in the name of income equity. What New Jerseyans want is an unfettered opportunity to succeed in the way they define success. They want an equal chance at the starting; not a government guaranteed result.” He adds for emphasis, “We should make sure that government pursues policies that believe in the effort, talent and optimism of New Jerseyans, not in the power of almighty government to fix any problem, real or imagined.”
But Christie’s message is not that of the Beltway hardliners who championed the shutdown. He wants to let voters know that both in his willingness to compromise and his interest in those in need, he’s a different breed of Republican than others who certainly will seek the presidency: “We have to be willing to play outside the red and blue boxes the media and pundits put us in; we have to be willing to reach out to others who look or speak differently than us; we have to be willing to personally reach out a helping hand to a neighbor suffering from drug addiction, depression or the dignity stripping loss of a job.” (There is an echo there of the president’s “no blue states, no red states, just the United States” appeal, one that vanished when he took office and governed like a rank partisan.)
Even more emphatically, Christie takes a whack at the shutdown squad and the anti-immigration types:
We will fight to continue to change government so that we value our differences and honor the strength of our diversity. We cannot fall victim to the attitude of Washington, DC. The attitude that says I am always right and you are always wrong. The attitude that puts everyone into a box they are not permitted to leave. The attitude that puts political wins ahead of policy agreements. The belief that compromise is a dirty word. As we saw in December regarding the DREAM Act, we can put the future of our state ahead of the partisans who would rather demonize than compromise. As your Governor, I will always be willing to listen, as long as that listening ends in decisive action for the people counting on us.
In essence, Christie is arguing that he’s conservative enough to lead the GOP, but he fights smarter than conservative purists to get things done. That, it seems, is his challenge, namely to connect his record and his talk about bipartisanship to conservative accomplishments. The tone and spirit of cooperation will be needed in a general election if he is the nominee and as president if he is elected, but in the meantime he needs to reassure Republicans that he doesn’t favor compromise for compromise sake, but rather as a strategic means of getting what Republicans want (e.g. taming the teachers union, balancing budgets).
Most every candidate runs to the base in the primary and to the center in the general election. For Christie, it is not a matter of changing any of his positions (which are center-right, reformist) but of showing that his pugnacious nature can be enlisted to fight for conservative values, for middle-class and poor Americans and for America in the world.
Christie, like all GOP contenders, will have his challenges quite aside from putting to rest concerns about the bridge scandal. For Christie, he’ll need to show a grasp of foreign policy and to evidence a sober and serious tone (as Ronald Reagan had to do in 1980). That will be essential in convincing Americans he’d be a trustworthy commander in chief, tougher than President Obama but not reckless. He’ll also need to craft a domestic agenda that is more than a recitation of what he did in New Jersey. (Is it school choice and education reform? Is it reforming entitlements?) And then he’ll have to paint the larger vision voters expect of someone running for president. (“A reformer with results” was George W. Bush’s line in 2000.)
Not unlike 2008, we expect 2016 will be a “change” election. (Yes, that is trouble for Hillary Clinton.) Telling voters what it is a GOP president will change and how to do it will be the critical components of not only Christie’s message, but of other candidates’ as well. Christie, for better or worse, now has high visibility in the national media; he’d do well to use the time to get a running start on establishing a presidential vision.